The Care & Tuning of Your Snare Drum
Part II: Tuning

by: Mark Wessels

Tuning the Top Head

Place the rods in each hole in the counter hoop. With your fingers, lightly screw them into the rod casing. They should turn easily - if not, then they may be going in at an angle. Don't force it with a drum key! You can strip out your tension rod or lug casing if you're not careful! Tighten with your fingers until the top of the tension rod JUST MAKES CONTACT with the counter hoop - don't use the drum key just yet.

After ALL tension rods are in place, go around the circumference and make each lug "finger tight." You might have to go around a few times - when you tighten one lug, it pulls the counter hoop down and loosens the rods directly next to it. Double check that the head is in full contact with the bearing edge of the shell.

If you're getting some "waves" on one side of the head, you might need to "seat" the head with your hand. Place the palm of your hand in the center of the drum and push down a couple of time. Now check once again that each tension rod is again finger tight.

Tune each tension point

Pick a lug that's at "3 o'clock" & put your drum key on it. Start by tightening the key to the right (righty, tighty - lefty, loosey) ONE HALF TURN ONLY. Have some patience - don't crank the first tension rod a million times! Now, go to the rod that's directly across from the first lug (if you started at 3 o'clock, then go to the one that's at 9 o'clock). As a personal preference, I like to tighten that lug finger tight again before I do a half turn with the drum key. After you tighten the 9 o'clock rod, cross over to the 4 o'clock rod & repeat the process. Keep criss-crossing until you come back to the first tension rod. This time, go around again, but use ONE QUARTER TURNS.

Now you're ready to start making some fine adjustments. Take a finger and push it into the middle of the drum. If the head is too loose, you'll feel a lot of "give" in the drum head - in that case, go around the drum again, using ONE EIGHTH TURNS. The tension of the head is a matter of personal taste & I'm not going to get into any major arguments about "great taste - less filling" with a bunch of drummers, BUT LET ME SAY THIS: if you're just starting out & want to learn to play drum rolls, a head that is a little tighter is easier to learn on!

I really should say something about tuning each lug to a pitch, but if you're experienced enough to know what I'm talking about then you probably aren't reading this page! If you've gone through each of the steps above, then you're probably in good shape.

Cleaning & Tuning the Bottom Head

This is the part I really hate! As I've mentioned before, the SNARE HEAD or bottom head is much thinner than the batter head because it must be able to vibrate to allow the snares to respond. Treat the snare head with caution! It's very easy to damage!

Let me start by saying: unless the snare head looks in bad shape, I'd encourage most beginners to not bother taking the snares and counter hoop off to clean it the way we did with the top head. Chances are that it's not nearly as dirty because it's facing down, not up. Most of the reason lies in the fact that you can mess up the snares with very little effort (and it's a real pain).

Taking off the bottom head

First you must disconnect the snares from the snare strainer. Every drum is different so I can't go into great detail here. Most have two screws located at the bottom of the snare strainer or on the opposite side of the drum where the back end of the snares are connected- loosen those two screw just enough to pull the cord or plastic strip free. Don't loose these two screws - they're small enough to blend in with that shag carpeting still found in most houses in Arkansas!

After you've taken off all of the tension rods, you should be able to pull the counter hoop off the drum. Take care that the snares pull free of the counter hoop without catching. If you can get by with just disconnecting ONE SIDE of the snare strainer, congratulations! You can now go through all of the steps above to clean the tension rods and tune the bottom head. Don't forget that when you put the counter hoop back on the drum, the holes (or "snare gate") MUST line up with the snare stainer! There's nothing like the feeling you get when you completely tune the bottom head & discover that the snare gate is on the wrong part of the drum! It helps to "thread" the snares through the gate on the counter hoop BEFORE putting the lugs back on!


Don't attempt to tune the bottom head to the same tension as the top head! You should be able to press on the head   lightly with one finger and feel a little "give." Don't worry: if you tune it too tight, you'll know immediately! You'll probably hear a sharp POP, then you'll be making a trip to the music store to get another head! (Drumcorps snare drummers are the only ones on the planet who seem to have the skill to crank a head until just before it pops! I used to have that ability, but I lost it when I became a band director!).

There! The heads are back on the drum & you're ready to finish up! Let's get those snares to sound good and talk about muffling for the other drums on your set!

Adjusting the Snare Strainer


After the bottom head is on & tuned, turn off the snare strainer (where's that plug again?) and loosen the "snare tension adjustment screw" just before it detaches.

Now, assuming that the drum is upside down on the floor, make sure that the snares are evenly spaced between each side of the counter hoop. If the "metal-part" of the snares (the part that all of the wires are connected to) is hanging through the gate of the counter hoop, chances are that you won't get a good connection between the snares and the bottom head. You may have to adjust one side of the snare strainer or the other to achieve this desired effect.

If you've got a snare that has a plastic strip between the snares and the snare strainer, you're probably in good shape - just feed the plastic through the open slot and tighten the little screws on the strainer. Make sure that there is a little slack (or you can turn on the snare strainer before you tighten the screws). The plastic will stretch a little as you tighten the snare tension adjustment screw on the snare strainer.

If you've got string or cord that connects the snares and snare strainer, you've got a little tougher job. Let me say first that you can't use just any old string - it just isn't strong enough. Tennis racket string works well, but doesn't tie very easily. I'd try to use some type of nylon string instead - you can get a foot or so at a hardware store for less than a dollar. Cord tends to stretch, so I'd encourage you to start with the snare strainer OFF and tie down then ends (remember that as you pull it tight, the strainer has a tendency to turn itself back on). After you get the ends fastened, turn the snare strainer on, then off again. Chances are that the cord stretched, so tighten the snare tension screw some and turn the snares on again.

If you forgot to loosen the thumb screw before you started this whole process, you're going to have to start over! Most problems with bad snare drum tuning are caused by a strainer that is "maxed out" and leaves no more room for adjustment.

Final Adjustments - Tighten the snare tension adjustment screw until you reach the desired sound. I like to start with a loose "wet" snare, then gradually tighten while I play SOFT taps on the drum. When the snares are stretched too tight, you won't hear them vibrate (resulting in a "choked" snare sound). If you make the adjustment while playing loud strokes, there's a good chance that you'll tighten too much - then your snare drum will sound like a tenor drum at soft dynamic levels!

Muffling the Drum

Turn off the snares & listen to the sound of your drum. If you've got overly "loose" drum heads, you'll hear a drum that rings a little after you play it. If you don't like that ring, you've got a couple of choices: either tighten the bottom and top head until the drum doesn't ring - or, if you like a "lower-pitched" snare sound: you can put a muffling patch on the drum.

There are several different commercial muffling systems available - most of which you can make at almost no cost! As you start making big bucks off your newly found talent, I'm sure that you can afford to buy the most expensive stuff out there, but for MY budget, here are a couple of alternatives:.

Take an old drum head that fits on the drum and cut out an inch-wide strip from around the outside edge. Lay that "donut" on the drum & you've got an instant "deadringer." You might want to put a small piece of tape on it to hold it in place.

Even cheaper alternative:.

Take a small piece of cotton cloth or Kleenex and tape it to the batter head. The amount of muffling you use will depend on the size of drum & what type of sound that you want to achieve. I personally like a piece that's a couple of inches square for the snare and mid-toms, maybe two patches for the floor tom. Usually the mid-toms and snare don't require any muffling on the bottom head.

Don't make the mistake of OVER MUFFLING! I hear drums that sound like cardboard boxes all the time - what a waste of money! Usually if there is NO RING, it might sound good where you're sitting - but walk a few yards away & you'll hear what I'm talking about. Experiment by having a friend play while you listen! There's no 'right' answer - use your ears.

Now that you've got your drum put back together & tuned (and you didn't wind up with too many extra parts), you should have a great sounding drum - right? Wrong! Here are a few common problems and how to solve them!

Go to Part III: Commonly Asked Questions